Why we need to overhaul our approach to knowledge management

Embracing new technology and data-sharing, and using the newfound knowledge we’ll acquire if we do this, can set the right course for a new era of smart construction, says Lesley Waud of Atkins. 

Embracing new technology and data-sharing can mean new era of smart construction, says Lesley Waud of Atkins.

Historically, our industry knowledge has sat with the architects, engineers and construction managers who make up our workforce. Individuals who have built up extensive experience over time and are able to use their judgement to make effective decisions. 

The downside to this is that if one of these individuals leaves an organisation, then that hard won knowledge leaves with them. Yes, there might be a paper trail that new team members can use to surface information – but often it’s just that, information, rather than knowledge. The richness of understanding how things fit together will be lost. 

However, as we move to more digital and data-enabled ways of working, our approach to knowledge management is shifting. It is slowly becoming recognised as a proper job of work – both to capture the valuable knowledge contained within an organisation and to share it effectively, to the benefit of everyone. 

While we may already conduct lessons learnt sessions, what the industry has been less good at is lifting these lessons out of individual projects and understanding the collective learnings across a portfolio or sector – mainly because people very quickly move on to the next job. 

This is a missed opportunity. But the more we start to work in a digital way, and the more data that’s readily available for us to draw insights from at an enterprise level – rather than just within individual projects or programmes – the more this knowledge capture is becoming easier to formalise. 

The role of technology in knowledge management

Is it possible, therefore, for us to entrust knowledge management solely to a computer from now on? In theory, you could codify all the standards that we work to as an industry, however the technology would still be lacking critical domain knowledge. 

At the same time, the conclusions we might have drawn historically were based on gut feel, experience, and the insights we had to hand. Whereas with new technology, we have the opportunity to ground these in much more quantitative – rather than just qualitative – data, and model scenarios more readily than we could have done before. 

We can therefore have far greater confidence in the likely outcomes. In conclusion, the combination of human experience and data insight is much stronger than the sum of its parts. 

However, for us to properly manage knowledge as organisations, and take full advantage of the data we now have available to us, we must be able to share it (appropriately) outside the scope of individual projects. 

This requires the cooperation of clients and partners, as well as our own stakeholders. At present, we as an industry, can still be quite proprietary when it comes to the project data we’re happy to share publicly, so this will require both a process and a mindset shift.

How can we facilitate this shift?

People need to start recognising the value of knowledge beyond themselves as individuals or a single project. They also need to properly invest the time and effort to capture it in a way that means it can be shared and used. In some instances, that’s within our gift, but in others, our contracts with partners and clients might limit what we can do. 

Unfortunately, these contracts are still being written the way they were 30 years ago. However, if as an industry, we can collectively recognise the value of shared knowledge – rather than using it as a differentiator to compete against each other – then can we write our contracts differently, to promote the sharing of knowledge. While at the same time accepting that certain data still needs to be controlled. 

After all, there is a fine line between controlling data and stopping knowledge and the insights being drawn from it altogether. If we continue to do that, we’re just going to keep repeating the same mistakes on future projects and we’ll never learn and grow. 

Next generation ambassadors for knowledge transfer

The good news is that new graduates and apprentices are entering our industry with a far more progressive, collaborative attitude. 

This open approach is likely not only to encourage our industry to take a more collaborative stance but ensure it does so at a faster rate. After all, the best new talent might be put off starting their careers in a sector that appears restrictive and secretive. 

We, as an industry, are on a journey when it comes to digital transformation. While we are well on the way to digitising a lot of our existing processes and workflows – and using technology to automate tasks we used to do manually – what we’ve been less bold about is radically rethinking some of those processes altogether. 

But by embracing new technology and data-sharing, and using the newfound knowledge we’ll acquire if we do this, we can set the right course for a new era of smart construction. 

Lesley Waud is global head of design transformation at Atkins.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.